With just over two weeks until the Iraqi elections, the United States is lowering its expectations for both the turnout and the results of the vote, increasingly emphasizing other steps over the next year as more important to Iraq's political transformation, according to U.S. officials.
The Bush administration played down voter turnout yesterday in determining the elections' legitimacy and urged Americans not to get bogged in a numbers game in judging the balloting, a reflection of the growing concern over how much the escalating insurgency and the problem of Sunni participation may affect the vote.
"I would . . . really encourage people not to focus on numbers, which in themselves don't have any meaning, but to look on the outcome and to look at the government that will be the product of these elections," a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity at a White House briefing yesterday. The official highlighted the low voter turnout in U.S. elections as evidence that polling numbers are not essential to legitimacy.
The transition from an interim body, which was appointed last summer by U.N. and U.S. officials, to an elected government "in itself is an enormous achievement and . . . we all encourage people to view it in that way," the official said.
For months, the administration has promoted the elections as a major milestone in its efforts to bring democracy to Iraq and then the wider Middle East and Islamic world. But the continuing insurgency and the inability of U.S. forces to stabilize Iraq almost two years after the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein has forced the administration to redefine the context, goals and role of this first vote.
At this late date, the United States also has no viable options or alternatives other than trying to go forward with the Jan. 30 elections, analysts say.
"I don't think they're thinking of a Plan B. What they have is permutations of Plan A: You go for elections, hope for the best and if it doesn't materialize, you go with whatever emerges -- probably a heavily Shiite government," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department Iraq specialist who is now head of Leheigh University's International Relations Department. "Then you hope that this new government will be smart enough and enlightened enough to make an outreach to the Sunnis."
Over the past week, administration officials have frequently stressed that the vote is only part of a year-long process. "The election is not going to be perfect," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday. "This is the first time Iraqis will be able to freely choose their leaders. It's for a transitional government, and it's only one of three elections that will take place over the course of this year."
A senior White House official said the administration's revised reflections on the Iraqi elections are not as much to lower expectations as to provide "education of the process going forward." President Bush, he added, fears Americans will expect a result similar to last fall's vote in Afghanistan, in which a president was chosen and the outcome was clear. "This is a far different process under way," he said.
The White House refused to make the comments on the record and allow the speakers to be identified. "It's been the practice over the past four years at the [National Security Council] that the only officials you see speak on the record are [national security adviser Condoleezza] Rice, [her deputy] Steve Hadley and the spokesman," said White House spokesman Sean McCormick.
The administration continues to say publicly that it expects a significant Sunni turnout, citing an International Republican Institute poll in early December showing 20 percent of Sunnis intend to vote and 35 percent intend "somewhat" to vote. But in light of the insurgents' growing attacks on election and government officials since that survey, U.S. officials fear last-minute attacks on polling stations, candidates and voters will produce a much smaller turnout among the minority group that once dominated Iraq. One unofficial estimate already predicts a vote as low as 10 percent in some areas.
The administration is working with Iraqis to maximize turnout with final modifications, such as allowing voters to cast their ballots at any regional polling station, U.S. officials say.
In talks with Shiite and Kurdish leaders, the administration is also exploring ways to compensate after the elections for a potentially low Sunni turnout.
The focus is increasingly on encouraging negotiations next month between the newly elected Iraqi assembly and Sunni leaders to ensure that the group is proportionately represented in government ministries and on the committee that will write a new constitution, U.S. officials said yesterday. The schedule now calls for talks after Feb. 15 -- when election results are due -- but before the formation of a new government by March 1.
"When you're naming the commission to draft the constitution, the ethnic composition of that isn't governed -- it's not proportional representation like the assembly is," said Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. "Who is in the ministries in the government, again . . . there's no ethnic limitation on that."
The administration now emphasizes the election for a permanent government, scheduled for December, as far more important than the vote at the end of this month for a short-lived national assembly.
"There will be many opportunities along the way for the Sunni community to express itself, either through voting or through other participation in the political process," said State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher. "And our goal is to try to make sure that all those opportunities are available to all the citizens of Iraq."